NASA as a Private Enterprise
October 10, 2012
Dr. Ben Longmier
Fifty-four years ago, NASA emerged from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other military operations to remain a competitive player in an ever-evolving global space race. Over the next 15 years, NASA, funded with 4% of the US GDP, made giant leaps for mankind. This brought a large amount of national pride, and demonstrated US superiority both in space and on the ground, as many commercial spin-off’s reached the marketplace. Many of the original mission designs and plans were conceived of by NASA civil servants (i.e. government employees). What’s often forgotten is that of the commercial partners and NASA contractors that helped to make these audacious plans a reality, a good fraction of the initial budget from NASA trickled down into private companies. This model of funding, including research and development to companies and universities, has continued to this day and is no different than any other government agency. Let’s face it, NASA was created to demonstrate U.S. technological superiority and then later took on the goal of beating the Russians to the Moon. In the process, 12 humans slipped the surly bonds of Earth, progress in science was made, and generations of people were inspired
to work on ambitious goals in space and on the ground, myself included. Fast-forward to the present, the Apollo days (and dollars) are gone, and NASA now operates on a yearly budget of about 0.5% of the U.S. GDP.
Let’s get real. Large, bold, expensive, and ambitious projects on the scale of NASA’s are rarely, if ever, led and funded by private companies. These projects are funded and directed by the advisors of kings and queens, nation states, governments, and multi-national organizations. There is little profit to be made in doing big exploration projects, and the financial barrier to entry is often way too high for a company to stomach. However, there is money to be made in supporting large projects, which is why the government-led/contractor-fed model works pretty well in most cases. It is then the goal of National Research Councils to advise the various government agencies on priorities and both short-term and long-term initiatives. In any case, NASA has a fraction of the budget it used to have. Averaged out, every man, woman, and child in the U.S. pays $60 per person per year to support NASA at its current (FY2011) funded rate. To put that into comparison, the U.S. Post Office receives about $225 per person per year in the U.S. Sure, overall, NASA has a large budget of $18.4 billion per year, but averaged out per person and compared to the entire federal discretionary budget of the U.S., NASA (and the post office) is a drop in the bucket.
That said, there are still bold projects being undertaken by private companies. Multi-millionaires and billionaires have started many of them, but they are also backed by NASA and other government agencies. Some private space firms have lofty goals of getting to Mars (SpaceX), flying people around the moon (Space Adventures), and flying people up into space on suborbital trajectories (Virgin Galactic). However, all of these ventures require some sort of day-to-day income to keep the lights on and keep a small army of engineers and scientists employed. SpaceX has adopted a model of capturing the market share in the rocket launch business and also re-supplying the International Space Station (NASA funded). Space Adventures maintains a commercial aircraft that flies over the Gulf of Mexico in parabolic arcs to achieve weightlessness for its passengers for 30 seconds (partially NASA funded) and sends tourist astronauts to the ISS (several government space agencies and the European Space Agency funded the ISS).
The point is, all of these companies aspire to complete grand projects, but they rely on funding support from NASA and other government agencies to do so. Without NASA and other government funding, many of these private companies would already be out of business or wouldn’t exist in the first place.
NASA does, however, suffer from the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. The organization could be made more effective than it already is if it followed more closely the recommendations of the decadal surveys completed by the National Research Council instead of changing the directions of its large programs depending on the opinions of the current Congress and administration. When President Kennedy set a bold vision for NASA back in 1961, the U.S. Congress backed this plan with 4% of the U.S. GDP. Without this sort of steady direction and financial backing, we as a nation can’t afford to do things like develop the next heavy-lift rocket, or send people to asteroids or Mars within the next 15 years. However, if we make strategic long-term investments in science and technology development that fit within a realistic budget, we can still accomplish many worthy goals like human deep-space exploration or enhanced outer solar system robotic exploration, just on a longer timescale. NASA, a publicly entity, is the best vehicle to fund and set the direction of the U.S. space program while private companies have and will continue to carry out these ambitious goals.
It has been over 50 years since the first American traveled into space, and space travel remains an extreme luxury. Until now, space tourism has been limited to the ultra-wealthy: just seven people have paid tens of millions of dollars each for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Russian rocket.
But tides are beginning to turn. Virgin Galactic intends to start offering flights just beyond the space barrier on a rocket ship the company has built, featuring five minutes of weightlessness during a two-and-a-half hour jaunt. At $200,000 a seat, this will open the final frontier to far more people. Virgin Galactic is a private company, utilizing potential profits and benefitting the public good.
The final frontier has remained insurmountable for most because minimal research dollars, government meddling, and flaccid public interest have hurt our space potential. The time for a paradigm shift in space exploration is now, as well as the answer to what lies beyond — privatization.
Few people realize that there has always been a part of NASA that has been privately owned. Where do you think NASA has gotten all the shuttles for their missions? They contract private companies to build them based on the mission at hand.
Sure, the Mars Rover was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, but the Atlas 5 rocket that carried it into space was built by United Space Alliance, a joint venture equally owned by the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
A popular argument against privatizing NASA is that the private sector will value a profit over the quality of work this field demands. This is not an unreasonable fear, but consider this angle: NASA’s government regulation, budget restrictions, and lack of profits deter all but the most passionate space explorers. However, as inequitable as it sounds, passion is not always synonymous with talent.
Space exploration is filled with unknown. Only a company who is willing to put in the time and export will come out with a profit. Space exploration doesn’t need baby steps; it needs imaginative daredevils who are willing to endure huge risks for the possibility of an even more extraordinary reward. Big names in business such as the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and the founder of PayPal, Elon Musk, are each already heading their own companies in the pursuit of space. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has safely arrived from the ISS, showing that private enterprise can successfully accomplish space ventures at vastly lower costs than a creaking governmental bureaucracy like NASA.
Throughout history, it has been shown that privatized organizations have been far better off than public or government owned organizations. This has also been seen in the recent Big &ree; car company bailouts. Any company that requires government support to just stay afloat in the market shouldn’t exist at all. In a capitalist market, the consumers, not the government, decide which companies make it and which ones do not. An example of this is U.S. Steel, created by Andrew Carnegie. U.S. Steel contracted with the Central Pacific R.R. bringing in a great amount of revenue to U.S. Steel. By privatization, NASA would be able to continue its work in space and funding NASA would be one load off government and taxpayers’ backs.
Picture this — the Department of Defense will still operate space operations and maintain public jurisdiction of space, but private companies will lead the innovation charge forward. Government does a lot of good and is vital in regulating the future of space travel and ensuring public safety. However, this does not mean there is no room for profits and competition out there. New ideas need to come from economic necessity, not just speculation. The US government could still have subsidized private sector companies that will explore space. Think of it as a mere restructuring that will include less bureaucracy and more action.
NASA has lost its sheen. It is no longer able to attract the best engineers and scientists who flock to more thriving private institutions. As recently as the 1970s, NASA was still the super agency – so much so that when the energy crisis struck, many people looked to NASA to come up with solutions. NASA was invincible.
Not so today. NASA has accomplished incredible feats in the past, but right now, Americans need to look toward the future. As far as patriotism is concerned, there are many Americans out there who will be saddened by the possibility of dissolving NASA and privatizing its initiatives. However, imagine the national pride that will occur if an American company is the first to, lets say, place a man on Mars.
The curiosity and possibility of outer space coalesce humanity across borders and push the boundaries of scientific invention and the imagination of the human mind. However, beyond the grandeur of the night sky, humans are motivated by something a bit more terrestrial: profits.